After watching Anthony Bourdain rave about Vietnam in Parts Unknown, we started thinking about taking a side trip from our upcoming China visit. Based on the time and weather, we decided to visit North and Central Vietnam from March 29th to April 8th.
Our travel itinerary:
Day 1: Arrive in Hanoi
Day 2: Hanoi
Day 3: Halong Bay cruise
Day 4: Halong Bay cruise, shuttle back to Hanoi
Day 5: Hanoi
Day 6: Fly to Hue at 8:50 am
Day 7: Train to Da Nang at 10:30 am, then shuttle to Hoi An
Day 8: Hoi An, My Son Sanctuary
Day 9: Shuttle to Da Nang
Day 10: Da Nang
There are two ways to get your Vietnam visa:
1. Apply in Person: fill out a form, attach two passport photos, and submit it at the embassy.
2. Visa Upon Arrival: apply for an approval letter online through travel agencies beforehand, then bring the letter, two passport photos, stamping fee ($25 cash), fill out a form at the airport. (Only available when arriving in Hanoi, Da Nang or Ho Chi Minh airport)
Both ways are fairly simple. Since we have access to an embassy, we went with the first option.
The easiest way to exchange money in Vietnam is to bring US Dollars to exchange in the airport, or take out cash from an ATM. However, do pay attention to the extra fees from the ATM and your debit card company per transaction. Ask your bank beforehand.
We brought $100 cash in total. It’s not a lot, but I don’t like carrying too much cash while traveling. We used credit cards whenever possible; most hotels, restaurants, and shops can accept Visa and MasterCard. We visited the ATM three times, and each time took out $100 .
Cellular data is fairly cheap and easy to get in Vietnam. There are several counters selling them at the airport. We chose the Vinaphone plan with 8GB data for $15.
One thing to note about Vietnam is that every time you get out of an airport or train station, there’ll be lots of people approaching you trying to give you a ride. Try to arrange pick-ups with the hotel/hostel that you’re staying at beforehand to avoid the hassle.
See my Vietnam packing list here.
DAY 1-2 | HANOI
Ca Phe Pho Co: This little coffee shop is hidden in a small alleyway in the Old Quarter. You can sit at the courtyard or the rooftop to enjoy their special egg coffee, a thick coffee drink that uses beaten egg yolk instead of cream.
Bun Cha Huong Lien: The place that convinced us to come to Vietnam, where Anthony Bourdain and Obama had their Hanoi specialty bun cha, a dish that consists of grilled meat in a sweet broth, fresh herbs and rice noodles.
Cafe RuNam: There are coffee shops like this everywhere in Hanoi. Enjoy a cup of iced Vietnamese coffee on the balcony and watch the frenetic pace of street life in Hanoi.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theater: A water puppet show that everyone says you have to go see. Tickets do run out, so if you’re planning to go, make sure to stop by the theater in the morning to get tickets for that night. The show was good, but there are no subtitles and a lot of the humor is solely in Vietnamese. Watch out for tourists using flash during the show! If that sort of thing bothers you, this might be an experience to avoid.
DAY 3-4 | HALONG BAY
Picking the right cruise is very important for Halong Bay. Once you start your research, you’ll see hundreds of choices, ranging from $10 to $500.
Compared to a luxury cruise in other countries, the value here is massive, which is why we ended up splurging on the Paradise Cruise – Elegance. This 2 Day 1 Night Cruise was $390 with shuttle ride from/back to Hanoi for the two of us. The boat was their newest addition, only 2 months old when we booked it.
We made the reservation with an agent on their website. The payments were made through a link the agent emailed me. I was a little bit nervous about the platform because of the lack of reviews on their reservation system, but everything turned out fine. They emailed us a passenger information form to fill out, which included the pick-up time and location, and they showed up at our hostel on time without any problems.
Everything felt very luxurious on the boat. It was the most relaxing and care-free experience of our whole trip. I don’t usually like arranged group tours, but sometimes it’s nice to let someone else do the planning, and you just go along and have fun.
We made two excursions from the cruise:
Floating Village: A small village that’s built on water, where the people live in boat-houses.
Sung Sot Cave: I had no idea there were such beautiful, massive caves in Vietnam!
DAY 5 | HANOI
Hoan Kiem Lake: It turns out that weekend evenings are a great time to be in Hanoi! Around Hoan Kiem Lake, streets are blocked for pedestrians only, so locals and tourists can hang out at night playing games and doing all sorts of activities. It was the most charming feeling, and instantly brought me back to my childhood in China.
Hoa Lo Prison Museum: A prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam for US prisoners during the Vietnam War. A dark but interesting experience. You can even lock yourself in one of the prisons!
Cha Ca Thang Long: Another Hanoi specialty, cha ca, pan fried fish with a variety of herbs cooked right in front of you.
Standing Bar: A great place for locally brewed beer with some Vietnamese twists.
Home Restaurant: Elegant colonial decor and impeccable service, truly worth a visit.
DAY 6 | HUE
The major attractions in Hue are the emperors’ tombs. They’re all fairly spread out, so you’ll need to get a ride. There are taxi/motor bike drivers wandering around town to talk you into a tour, but we arranged a private car with our hotel (Scarlett Boutique). We had about 3 hours, so we decided to go to Minh Mang tomb (more ancient), Khai Dinh tomb (more modern) and Thien Mu Pagoda. The tour was $35 for the two of us.
Hanh Restaurant: Our hotel told us they have the best local Hue-style food. Their banh beo (these tiny little plates of steamed rice flour cake topped with savory crunches) and banh khoai (a crispy rice cake filled with meats and veggies) are so unique and fun to eat!
DAY 7-8 | HOI AN
Traveling from Hue to Hoi An
I did lots of research for this route, and it seemed like most people get a car ride or bus ride, in order to better view the scenic coastline. We love train rides, so we decided to take this opportunity to experience a Vietnam railroad. Hoi An doesn’t have a train station yet, so the only way to get there by train is to get off in Da Nang then get a car ride.
The train ride from Hue to Da Nang was about 2.5 hours, and it cost us $3 each. The tickets are much more expensive online ($14), so I’d suggest getting them from the train station the day before, or talk to your hotel. There’s a timetable on the Vietnam railway website, and we booked the 10:35 am train. There are two different classes: hard seat without A/C and soft seat with A/C. The ride was a little bumpy but quite fun. However, for an overnight train, it might be hard to fall asleep.
As for the ride from Da Nang train station to Hoi An, we previously arranged with our hotel (Little Hoi An Boutique) for $23 one-way.
Food in Hoi An was phenomenal. The whole town was full of restaurants, coffee shops and bars. Just walk around and follow your nose! As in all Asian tourist towns, stores in Hoi An tend to repeat, so a two night-stay was right for us. We had enough time to explore all the little alleyways and try all the restaurants, but not so much that we became bored.
Morning Glory: The most reviewed Hoi An restaurant on TripAdvisor. It’s extremely crowded every night, so if you plan on going there, make a reservation beforehand. Or, just go for a snack in the afternoon to avoid the crowds. We got the local specialty white rose and banh xeo, both very fresh and yummy.
The Chef: A rooftop restaurant on top of a cute bookstore. Everything on the menu is a lot cheaper than the other restaurants in Hoi An ancient town. The local specialties chicken rice and cao lau are especially delicious.
Reaching Out Tea House: A peaceful tea house run by disabled staff. A nice little escape from the hot and crowded afternoons. Remember to be quiet when you’re there.
My Son Sanctuary: An ancient Cham temple abandoned and partially ruined during the Vietnam War. Often compared to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, My Son is about 1 hour drive from Hoi An, so we booked a group tour through our hotel for $15 each. The site and ruins were beautiful, but the tour was mediocre. We spent a lot of time waiting for other passengers, but not enough exploring. If you have the time and budget, I’d recommend taking a private or small tour instead.
Banh Mi Phuong: Seriously, the best banh mi sandwich in my whole life! The fact that we went there twice shows.
Ginkgo T-Shirt: If you’re looking for some souvenirs, Ginkgo makes high quality and creative products that are 100% made in Vietnam.
DAY 9-10 | DA NANG
Da Nang is a newer, more modern city, and the least touristy of all the places we visited. It was a nice last stop on our trip because we finally left the crowds behind to join the locals. However, getting around in Da Nang was a lot harder than other cities.
We stayed at Fusion Suites Danang, which was a clean and modern hotel, but surprisingly there weren’t a lot going on by the beach. The night life in Da Nang all happens on the west side of the Han River, so we had to take taxis to get around, which was actually the most expensive thing in Vietnam. So unless you just want to relax by the beach, I’d recommend staying closer to the river.
Marble Mountains: The mountains are a cluster of five hills, located 9km outside of Da Nang. The best way to get there is by taxi, which cost us $20 round trip. There are lots of little caves in the mountains, but the biggest and the most epic is Am Phu Cave, which has its own separate entrance at the base of the mountain.
Quan Be Man: A fresh and delicious seafood feast. Ordering might be challenging here because the staff don’t really speak English. They have all the seafood laid out, so all you need to do is point to the ones you want, they weigh it, you pick a method of cooking (typically BBQ/grill), then give them your table number. It gets quite busy at night, so if you want to avoid wait time, go in the afternoon.
Cong Caphe: In the evening, all the cafes and restaurants by the Han River put out these tiny little tables and chairs on the sidewalk. The atmosphere here was so energetic and inviting that you just couldn’t pass by without joining them. Order a glass of their signature iced coconut coffee, then sit by the sidewalk and do some people watching.
Waterfront Restaurant: A more upscale western-styled restaurant. Just thinking about their excellent polenta fries still makes me drool.
Night life in Vietnam ends surprisingly early (around midnight). Everyone seems to be on an earlier schedule. If you want to experience Vietnamese night life, start at a reasonable time.
Traffic crossing can be intimidating at first, especially because there are almost no traffic lights. Just slowly walk into the street, while making sure that the drivers can see your intentions clearly. They will start to drive behind you.
Anthony Bourdain says that happiness is eating something delicious in a bowl that you can’t quite identify as scooters whiz by. And though all great trips must come to an end, we left Vietnam hungry for more. We can’t wait to visit South Vietnam and Saigon when the weather gets cooler!
“I’ll come back to Vietnam, always.”